Tag Archives: British Cinema

The Beguiled

The Beguiled

When I saw Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Beguiled (2017) at the County Theater in Doylestown I was actually really surprised by it. I know it really wasn’t very much akin to its source material, A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, and it certainly stood in sociological opposition to the Don Siegel adaptation of 1971. And yet, I found the film to be boring.

Coppola’s style appears to have opened up to prioritize geographical location and setting at a higher value since The Bling Ring (2013), often times reminding me of David Gordon Green’s more recent independent film dramas. But this sudden value she appears to have found in locale is overwhelmed by how cloistered the narrative scope is (a sharp contrast to her 2003 feature Lost In Translation). It is almost as if by adapting Cullinan’s novel into a film and reconstructing it as a feminist work that Coppola has repressed all of the other links to the political, sociological, and historical contexts that should have shaped the narrative and given it greater value.

The Beguiled, very early on, severs all of its ties with the American institution of slavery. If memory serves it is Nicole Kidman, as Miss Farnsworth, who observes that “about a year ago all of our slaves left”. Then later, Colin Farrell, as Corporal McBurney, relates to his hosts that he is a “mercenary”, and that he does not believe in either the Union nor the Confederate causes in one of the most blatant pieces of expositional dialogue I have heard in awhile. Both of these moments “whitewash” the narrative. Coppola denies her audience the context of these characters’ very existence in order to keep the viewer’s focus solely on the sexual politics of The Beguiled. In so doing, I hardly see the purpose of even keeping the narrative of The Beguiled situated during the American Civil War. These events could just as easily have happened if they were set in Bosnia, Iran, Chile, or Vietnam.

The Beguiled’s most glaring narrative omission is its inability to articulate the generational divide between the seminary’s instructors and their charges. That Sofia Coppola has proven quite adept at depicting the nuances of such conflicts in her debut feature The Virgin Suicides (1999) and yet would rather not address these issues in The Beguiled is disappointing. A good deal about all of the leads could have been shown/learned by allowing the film the time to expand upon these interrelationships.

The sexual politics of The Beguiled (an eye for an eye so to speak) themselves, though superficially interesting, aren’t anything new. When walking out of the theater I thought about how much the narrative structure of The Beguiled reminded me of Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank (2009). Both films’ narrative structure begins and hinges upon the introduction of a male into a unit of women (a single mother and her two daughters in Fish Tank). In as much as for control as for a bid for power, these male characters (Farrell and Michael Fassbender) attach themselves openly to the older female characters while intending to sexually exploit the younger. But where in The Beguiled the unit of women combines to seek retribution for the male’s offenses, in Fish Tank, it is only the eldest daughter Mia (Katie Jarvis) who takes up the task (her mother and little sister prefer denial). By focusing only on Mia’s journey through the narrative Arnold gives her audience a strong portrait of womanhood in the early 21st century while also bypassing a broad allegorical form that the seminary represents in The Beguiled.

Andrea Arnold’s specificity of character, time and place as well as her employment of minor details in character and setting ground her realist narrative in a very contemporary setting, relying on the emotional vitality of the performers (Fassbender and Jarvis) to give the film enough “truth”, as Cassavetes would call it, to be transcendent. Sofia Coppola, on the other hand, appears to have designed her film to be “timeless” in terms dictated by its omissions as much as its inclusions. For me this makes Fish Tank a far more relevant and engaging piece of cinematic art than The Beguiled.

Fish Tank
Sofia Coppola’s brand of cinematic feminism is then only existent in conditions similar to a vacuum. The trappings of moment and setting must be made superfluous to propagate any meaningful dialogue exchange with an audience regarding feminist discourse. This doesn’t mean that The Beguiled is a bad film. In many respects I believe there is something of value in what Coppola gives audiences with her film by simply sustaining such a discourse at all. The issue for me is that the film doesn’t live up to its own potential as a means for both strengthening and widening the discourse that concerns Sofia Coppola so much.

-Robert Curry

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Jubilee

Jubilee (1978) was Derek Jarman’s much anticipated follow-up to Sebastiane (1976), and like Sebastiane, Jubilee was shot on a low-grade color film stock with shots composed to evoke the classic paintings of the Renaissance and the portraits of the Dutch Masters.  But Jubilee, a natural progression in visual style, is a much more explicitly political film than Sebastiane, not only satirizing post modern interpretations of the necessity of art, but also political institutions such as the London Police Force, media moguls, and Fascism.  With the “punk” movement in full swing across Britain, Jarman sets about scrutinizing contemporary London from the vantage point of Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), the representative of all the traditional English values and morals.

The plot, episodic in nature, begins with Queen Elizabeth I summoning the angel Ariel, with the aid of her occultist John Dee (played by Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O’Brien), to see into Britain’s future.   In the future, the film follows the exploits and interactions of Bod (Jenny Runacre), Crabs (Nell Campbell), Mad (Toyah Wilcox), Amyl Nitrite (Jordan), Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), Angel (Ian Charleson), Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and Kid (Adam Ant).  This cast of characters epitomizes Britain’s “punk” generation, from their need for destructive rebellion to their Warhol-like ambitions for super stardom.  The character who exercises the most power in this nightmare is media mogul Borgia Ginz (Jack Birkett), whose very name is a “punkish” pun.

Presumably, the “future” action of Jubilee is a comic prediction on how things will turn out unabated; the end of “merry” England.  The “future” action seems to take place only a few years in the future from the start of the film’s production in 1977.  In this hostile environment of murderous policemen and punk rockers, Jarman manages to photograph London to look like Hiroshima after the bomb, a decaying landscape of urban development and decay.  Aesthetically, Jarman is setting the stage for his greatest cinematic achievement, The Last Of England (1986), that will consist exclusively of such visuals, employed again to juxtapose the contemporary Britain of Thatcher with the “England Of Old”.

The conflict of the past versus the present is one of the mainstays of British counterculture as well as the “punk” movement.  Jubilee epitomizes “punk” in film, and became the blueprint for a dozen like-minded films such as Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s pseudo-documentary on The Clash, Rude Boy (1980), and Ulli Lommel’s films with Andy Warhol Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and The Blank Generation (1980).  Episodic narratives about media corruption and rebellion were the mainstays of Jarman’s imitators, of which the only film that seems to be moving in a new direction is The Blank Generation, which exhibits Lommel and R.W. Fassbinder’s affections for melodrama and Hollywood classicism.  Rather quickly this approach to youth targeted underground filmmaking was commercialized by MTV, and would manifest itself later in a distilled version as Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1987).

In its moment, Jubilee was shocking and controversial, not just for Jarman’s visual comparisons of British authorities with Nazis, but also for the frank depictions of homosexual intercourse and police violence.  Of all the “punk” films that followed, Jubilee is the only film with a clear political perspective and filmic style that can claim to form one cohesive aesthetic whole.  Jubilee’s suppression at the time of its release is not surprising given the political turmoil in England at the time. But such blatant censorship only strengthened the resolve of the counter-culture, propelling Derek Jarman into a sort of messiah position in Britain’s underground and queer cultures.

In order to better understand the context and significance of Jubilee, one must take into account a number of influential figures upon both Derek Jarman and the British underground in general.  Figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Nicholas Ray all figure into the cinema of Derek Jarman rather heavily.  Consider William S. Burrough’s Nova Trilogy (The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express and The Soft Machine), whose primary focus is the corruption of man by a vast influx of new information and technology, that gives way to a grim future akin to an orgiastic homosexual reinterpretation of Orwell’s 1984.  These texts are indispensable to Jarman, who will employ Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique on the soundtrack of The Last Of England.  Through all three of Burroughs’ novels, the television set is an object of menace, just as it is a means for Borgia Ginz to control the youth population in Jubilee.

David Bowie’s influence on the “punk” movement is immeasurable, but to Jubilee more exclusively, Bowie’s influence can be pinpointed to the years 1972 and 1973 of his career when he assumed the persona of Ziggy Stardust.  Bowie’s invented character embodies campy high fashion and a fame seeking self-destruction.  These two character traits outline the trajectory and concerns of the characters Kid, Crabs, and Mad in Jubilee, just as they coincide with every struggling musician’s ambitions to some degree.  The difference here is the “camp” that Jarman pushes to excess in his performers, so that each becomes a terribly funny and self-aware parody of themselves.

The “campy” quality of the performances is indicative also of the circumstances surrounding the performers themselves.  Like Andy Warhol, Derek Jarman (also a painter) surrounded himself with a group of outlandish individuals who would hang around his studio space.  From this collection of individuals, Jarman cast many of his short films, and a number of roles in Jubilee.  The influence of Warhol in this fashion is typical; underground filmmakers, without many professional connections, are reliant upon Warhol’s tactics of casting his friends and hangers-on in his films.

The final major influence on Jubilee is the least expected, Nicholas Ray.  Jarman infuses his film with the devices in Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to evoke the “youth in trouble” sub-genre.  Slow panning shots that build tension are a mainstay in each film, as is the adoption of a family unit by a group of friends.  Bod and her gang of girlfriends are an appropriate “punk” perversion of the James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo family unit in Rebel Without A Cause.  Jarman repeatedly calls the audience’s attention to the parallel with his use of the color “red” in interior shots, recalling the deep Technicolor red of Dean’s jacket in Ray’s film.

Color and form themselves are exciting components that are essential to Jarman’s visual style.  A painter first and foremost, Jarman’s obsession with the human form in the work of Caravaggio is infamous.  Beyond Jarman’s biopic on the painter, Caravaggio (1986), Jarman implements Caravaggio’s compositional style into many of the shots in his films.  Most often, Jarman will employ Caravaggio’s strategy of highlighting the human form by lighting them against a black backdrop.  The effect not only directs the viewer’s focus, but also conveys a sensuous longing and desire.  The tactic described above is used numerous times in Jubilee; most notably during the first interior at the castle of Queen Elizabeth I.

All these stylistic influences from the counterculture and Jarman’s passion for the Baroque represent individual signifiers that run throughout Jubilee to form a post-modernist cinematographic complex.  This allows not just for a diverse sensory experience, but also an intellectual one.  The prowess with which Jarman addresses each component is often overlooked by audiences and critics alike; the “camp” and violence overshadow the heavier themes at work in the film.  Yet, this appears to be the precise mode that Derek Jarman wishes Jubilee to function in.  Consider Dick Hebdige’s observation in his book Subcultue: The Meaning Of Style: “the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstar”.  Hebdige has described glam rock as “extreme foppishness, incipient elitism”, the exact connotations Jarman tries so hard to avoid in his filmmaking style.  The “camp” and violence in Jubilee is simply a means to reach the British “every man”.  The loftier issues Jarman addresses are meant to linger in the background, working subliminally on the film’s audience so as not to isolate or condescend.  I would therefore argue that such a device is not a detractor from the film, but a necessity.

The kind of manipulation and cultural understanding to execute a seemingly simple yet infinitely complex film like Jubilee speaks to a maturity critics were not willing to recognize in Jarman when Jubilee was first released.  Perhaps the campy violence made it a film that was easy to dismiss, or perhaps it was Jarman’s open homosexuality that prevented serious critical evaluation..

-Robert Curry

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